Branch Davidians will celebrate Passover in two days.

Authorities believe it could be a crucial time in the 36-day-old standoff between them and cult leader Vernon Howell.

So do former cult members.

“They’re taking a chance waiting, that’s all I can say,” said Marc Breault, a former confidant of Howell.

“If they do something before Passover, they would throw his time prophecy out of sync. If they do something or allow Vernon to do something at Passover, it makes him that much more of a true prophet to his followers.”

Breault said he faxed the FBI a message early in the standoff warning that Passover could be when Howell acts.

Passover traditionally is the Jewish festival of freedom.

But Passover also has darker overtones.

It also refers to the Old Testament recounting of God killing the first-born in Egyptian homes, but sparing the Israelites.

And Jesus Christ’s death is remembered on Good Friday — although scholars say he probably died on either Passover of the day after.

“Vernon always stressed that things happen at Passover,” said Breault, who left the cult in late 1989. “They’re all tied into destruction.”

Trying to parallel Christ

All that worries Elizabeth Baranyai, a former cult member and Breault’s wife. She notes that Howell claims to be Christ — which he acknowledged to the Tribune-Herald in its series, “The Sinful Messiah.”

Christ died when he was 33 years old. Howell is 33.

“He changed his name to David Koresh when he was 30, saying he was Jesus Christ,” Baranyai said.

“He seems to be trying to parallel Christ’s ministry.”

Authorities also believe the upcoming week may break the inactivity that has lingered since Feb. 28, when four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed trying to serve Howell an arrest warrant for possession of automatic weapons. At least two Branch Davidians died in the shootout at Mount Carmel, 10 miles east of Waco.

“It could be they walk out and surrender,” said FBI agent Richard Schwein. “It could be that they take some action. It could be they do nothing. From the beginning he has indicated there is some special significance to this Passover season.”

Former cult member Robyn Bunds said she’s given up predicting what Howell will do, but she scoffs at cult member Livingston Fagan’s statement that something supernatural will soon happen.

“What can Vernon do?” Bunds asked. “He isn’t God. I guess when nothing happens, he’ll come out.”

Following prophecy

Breault believes Howell is telling his followers that they are under a time prophecy, perhaps the one found in Daniel 12:6, 7:

“How long will it be until all these stories end?” He replied, with both hands lifted to heaven, taking oath by him who lives forever and ever, that they will not end until three and half years after the power of God’s people has been crushed.

The last sentence is interpreted to mean, “when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end.”

Howell might be dating that prophecy from Yom Kippur in 1989, which followed his New Light revelation, Breault said. That would mean the 3 ½ years would conclude at this Passover.

On Aug. 5, 1989, Howell told the Branch Davidians that all the women in the world belong to the Lamb of God, who the Bible says will unlock the Seven Seals, unleashing the catastrophic events that will end mankind. Howell claimed to be the Lamb. Only the Lamb, Howell taught, had righteous seed. All the other relationships between men and women, even marriage, were adultery.

Breault said Howell probably considers himself to have been deified at Yom Kippur.

Howell originally taught the Lamb was Cyrus, a latterday king who would destroy the Babylonians or unbelievers. But when Breault successfully argued that the Bible taught the Lamb was Christ, Howell fought back, according to former cult members.

If the Bible said only the Christ could reveal the Seven Seals, that led to an inescapable conclusion, Howell agreed. Since he had supposedly shown repeatedly that only he could unveil the baffling language guarding the Seven Seals, he was Christ.

“The wives’ doctrine was the ultimate test,” Breault said.

“Vernon considered it a shaking out. The traitor was revealed — being me, since I didn’t want to give up my wife. Now God was ready to launch the final phase of Vernon’s messiahship, what everyone had been waiting for.”

Both Breault and Baranyai worry that Howell may have boxed himself into doing violence through his interpretation of the Seven Seals.

Cult members coming out say it is the time of the Fifth Seal.

Dead martyers are under an altar of sacrifice in the Seal. They complain to God. They ask when they will be avenged.

“They are given white robes,” Breault said. “They are told to rest for a ‘little season,’ until the number of their breathen that are to be killed is fulfilled.”

Howell may have been looking for a sign the Fifth Seal was complete —if the Branch Davidians killed in the shootout fulfilled the number of required martyrs — when he told FBI negotiators that he was waiting for an astronomical sign, Breault said.

Looking for a sign

“What he was looking for was the Sixth Seal, when Christ rises up to heaven,” Breault said. “The sun is darkened, the moon appears as blood and the stars fall from heaven. That would have told him the Fifth Seal was complete. When that didn’t happen, he realized the number of martyrs weren’t made up. The Bible clearly says there have to be certain number of martyrs before the Lord comes.”

If Howell is to end the standoff peacefully, he must figure a way around the Fifth Seal, Breault said.

“He has to figure how to get out of the box he made for himself,” Breault said. “The Fifth Seal is his worst nightmare at the moment. But knowing Vernon, he could come up (with) something. But that’s what he’s faced with.”

Former cult member Lisa Gent, though, wonders if Howell wants a peaceful ending.

“If you call yourself the Lamb, somewhere along the line you die,” she said.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.